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Blinken returns to Mideast in push for hostage deal, postwar plan for Gaza

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Monday at the start of his fifth visit to the Middle East since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, hoping to press ahead with a potential cease-fire deal and postwar planning while tamping down regional tensions.

But on all three fronts he faces major challenges: Hamas and Israel are publicly at odds over key elements of a potential truce. Israel has dismissed U.S. calls for a path to a Palestinian state, and Iran’s terrorist allies in the region have shown little sign of being deterred by U.S. strikes.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas has begun to re-emerge in some of the most devastated areas after Israeli forces pulled back, an indication that Israel’s central goal of crushing the group remains elusive.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the military would continue to conduct operations in northern Gaza for many months and press ahead with its main offensive in the south, where it has been locked in heavy fighting for weeks, until it has “full reign” over the entire territory.

He said the army in the north has “free reign for ground operations and they will continue in the coming months as well.”

Gallant said that Israel has dismantled three-quarters of Hamas’ forces, and that half of the group’s fighters have either been killed or wounded.

He said the offensive will eventually reach the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Egypt has said an Israeli deployment along the border would threaten the peace treaty the two countries signed over four decades ago.

Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shortly after arriving in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Saudi officials have said the kingdom is still interested in normalizing relations with Israel in a potentially historic deal, but only if there is a credible plan to create a Palestinian state.

Blinken “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further spread of the conflict,” and he and the crown prince discussed “the importance of building a more integrated and prosperous region,” the State Department said in a statement.

But any such grand bargain appears a long way off as the war still rages in Gaza.

The war was triggered on Oct. 7 after Hamas and other terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in an attack on southern Israel and abducted around 250. More than 100 captives, mostly women and children, were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said Monday the death toll from nearly four months of war has risen to 27,478. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count.

Hamas returns to streets

A video circulating online Monday showed masked gunmen leading a line of shirtless detainees past bombed-out buildings in northern Gaza, forcing them to shout out that they are thieves. The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm the incident.

It was the latest sign that Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, is reasserting control in parts of the north.

Residents say Hamas-led security forces, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war, have begun to reappear in some areas where they focus on distributing civil salaries and cracking down on looters.

The Israeli military says it has launched targeted operations in northern Gaza over the last week to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its capabilities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until Israel crushes Hamas’ military and governing abilities and wins the return of the 100-plus hostages still held by the terrorist group after the Oct. 7 cross-border raid that ignited the war.

Meeting with troops on Monday, Netanyahu said Israel had defeated 18 of Hamas’ 24 battalions. “We are on the way to absolute victory, and I want to tell you that we are committed to it and we will not give it up.”

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